October 20, 2011
Celebrating Real Food: Chef and Cookbook Author Ann Gentry
The actress-turned-restaurateur found stardom creating healthy, humane food
When Ann Gentry left Memphis for New York City nearly 30 years ago, she hoped to make a name for herself on Broadway. But it was the job she took to support her acting ambitions that uncovered her true calling.
Waiting tables at a Greenwich Village vegetarian restaurant, she began to learn some basics—from choosing foods at open-air markets to cultivating the best flavors in the kitchen. Before long, Gentry was experimenting with American vegetarian and Asian macrobiotic cuisines, and sharing her creations with fellow actors. Following a move to Los Angeles, her food sharing evolved into a meal delivery service. In 1993, she opened her first restaurant, Real Food Daily.
A second restaurant and two cookbooks later, Gentry is a world-famous chef with a loyal following and a passion for introducing people to the joys of healthy, humane eating. In this edited interview with All Animals staff writer Ruthanne Johnson, Gentry talks about keeping it real when it comes to food.
You grew up on southern cooking and convenience foods; what inspired you to change your diet all those years ago?
It was health reasons. I didn’t feel good. I realized I had no balance. I was eating mostly the same things. I had these cravings---sugar and oil and salt and [fats].
Some people equate healthy with bland.
The American palette has been destroyed by eating too much salt and fat. So when we go to eat something as simple as a carrot---which can be very sweet, especially when roasted, cooked, or steamed---it’s way too bland for people. They say, “Where’s the salt, where’s the butter?” After you have been eating right for a while and your taste buds change, you can appreciate roasted carrot or yellow squash with just a little salt on it.
How do you appeal to your customers’ diverse palates?
Vegetarian cooking is like any cuisine. You are marinating, using different cooking techniques and bringing flavors to food. You just transfer those principles over to the plant proteins---tempeh, tofu, seitan, beans, legumes.
One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten was [when] this heavy man dressed in a very nice suit came to my restaurant with a friend and on the way out he said, “This is one of the nicest meals I’ve ever had.” He had no idea he was eating a vegan meal and said he felt incredible. I’ve heard that more than once.
What do you hope people learn from your cookbooks, The Real Food Daily Cookbook and Vegan Family Meals?
Vegan cooking is not just about steamed vegetables. It’s really creative, and the home cook is learning to trust her creativity. A great place to start is to read a bunch of cookbooks.
You don’t have to be a gourmet chef to eat well at home. Cooking is about discovery and getting off the beaten path. People are hungry for good-quality, real food. But many of them don’t know what it is, where to get it, and what to do with it when they get it. They are up against their culture, their history, their upbringing. The Western world is overdoing all of the animal products, obsessed with how much protein they get. And when they get all that [animal] protein, look what it does to them.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
Obviously, this is my life’s work. It’s been a long journey, and it’s not over yet. What I hope to do along the way is lead by example, because you want to be healthy for yourself and your family and for the health of the planet.